Music Video

8 The Current Crisis: New Formats and Distribution Channels

Behind the crisis of the music video that is frequently diagnosed today stand two distinct yet related sets of problems. The Internet plays a part in both cases. The record industry experienced another economic downturn in the late 1990s as the result, among other things, of the possibility of downloading music more or less free of charge from the Internet. This in turn led to extreme cuts in the budgets for music videos. Music television also lost its monopoly to the Internet, since it was now possible to play videos immediately rather than waiting—as was previously the case with MTV, for example—until a particular video is shown. In a sense, it represents a return to visual jukeboxes, which also made it possible to choose specific films directly.

The change in distribution channels for music also had an effect on music videos and additionally engendered new forms resulting from certain requirements of the media. For example, music videos are increasingly viewed in the form of audiovisual mobile-phone ring tones, so-called machinimas (films produced with the help of game engines), or on the Internet (e.g., the Internet platform YouTube). The circumstances of their reception (e.g., lower image quality) are taken into account by reducing the complexity of the relationship of image, music, and text. The smaller budgets for music videos also means that one finds more esthetically simplified reproductions or simulated depictions of (live) performances. Consequently, one of the basic functions of the video—as a substitute for a live performance—is given more emphasis, as is the case, for example, with the video Mark Romanek directed in 2005 for Speed of Sound by Coldplay.

At the same time, the continuation of a certain innovative vitality of the music video is evident from the fact that creative impulses have sometimes come from its new form of presentation: whereas the director Walter Stern, in his video for The Prayer by Bloc Party (2006), made the medium of the video—film—seem to get hot and break out in flames, directors such as Ray Tintori (in his video for Evident Utensil by Chairlift) or Nabil Elderkin (in the video for Kanye West’s Welcome to the Heartbreak, also from 2009) deliberately employed the interference and distortion that can result from flawed data transfer via the Internet as an esthetic stylistic feature in so-called datamoshing.

In addition, the availability of digital tools and the spread of Internet platforms such as YouTube have led to the updating and recombination of already familiar techniques—for example, when the traditional technique of mashing is applied to videos shot by ordinary users and uploaded to YouTube. Using an idea that Matthew Cullen had employed in his video for Pork and Beans by Weezer (2008)—namely, inviting people famous from YouTube to participate in his video— the Israeli musician Kutiman used excerpts from YouTube videos as samples for his Thru You project and mixed them into new audiovisual compositions.

There are also approaches that expand the music video by combining it with software applications. One example of this is Erik Schneider’s Choose project (2005–2007), which entailed developing an interactive video structure based on a vvvv patch. Other directors have exploited the possibility of digital image manipulation to open up room to play with innovative combinations of sound and image that also demonstrate the associated increasing virtuality of visual worlds, as Michel Gondry impressively demonstrates in his video for Star Guitar by the Chemical Brothers. Starting out with real photographs, a visual object is assigned to each musical event by subsequently editing the visual elements, though this is not evident on first glance.

The esthetic innovations of the music video by experimenters like Gondry have since been used increasingly in the cinema, not least because many video directors have gone over to the film industry. There videos influence entire film sequences and establish new forms of narrative. As far back as the Scopitone era, individual directors—Claude Lelouch, for example—applied the experience they acquired there to their film work, while other directors, such as Chris Cunningham, have become established in the art world.